Tag Archives: relationships

Identifying and addressing competing attachments with couples

By Anabelle Bugatti August 6, 2020

Couples come to counseling for a variety of reasons, and therapists are tasked with understanding the nature of couples’ concerns and offering helpful tools. Sometimes, as therapists, we might hear one partner complain about the things the other partner is doing and, often, these things may seem very trivial. We might also hear clients complain of conflict that centers on a lack of emotional availability on the part of their partner, coupled with their partner escaping or turning elsewhere to de-stress, to get needs met or for emotional sharing.

For example, one person might say, “My partner is always on their phone” or “My husband always takes work calls even during family time” or “My wife shares our fights with her friends” or “My partner would rather play video games than be with me.” Then there are statements that are less trivial, such as, “I think my spouse is having an affair.”

Anything that erodes the security of the bond between partners and creates distress can be seen as a threat to the relationship. The resulting distress must not be viewed as trivial, regardless of how small and harmless the situation may appear on the surface.

A rival to the relationship

A competing attachment is a threat to secure bonding in which one person in a relationship turns away from the relationship and toward someone or something else to get their emotional or attachment needs met. This is often experienced by their partner as a rival to their relationship — someone or something with which they have to compete for their sweetheart’s time
and attention.

Some of these emotional investments or activities on the part of one of the partners may actually be counterfeit attachments. These attachments are an attempt to mimic the fulfillment of comfort, soothing and belonging needs that a secure relationship would typically provide. It is usually the other partner (not the partner engaging in the competing attachment) who initially complains of distress.

The person participating in the competing attachment may or may not be aware that they are turning elsewhere to get their emotional and attachment needs met. This may largely depend on their own attachment style and level of emotional intelligence. Those engaging in the competing attachment are sometimes aware of what they are doing but may try to deny the impact this has on their partner or relationship. 

Depending on the type of competing attachment (what or whom a person turns out to) and the frequency (how often they’re turning out), their partner can be left feeling frustrated, jealous, hurt and disconnected. The more often this occurs, the more distressed the relationship may become. The attachment bond may then start to shift from secure to insecure, or a romantic attachment bond that was already insecure can have that insecurity amplified. Additionally, relationship satisfaction decreases as a relationship becomes distressed by a competing attachment.

Research currently shows a connection between competing attachments and insecure attachment relationships. However, it is unknown whether one causes the other or if an already insecure bond or insecurely attached person might be more vulnerable to developing or experiencing a competing attachment.

While different types of competing attachments tend to pose different levels of threat to a relationship, there is a clear connection between a partner’s concern of competing attachment and their romantic attachment security and relationship satisfaction. In a study conducted for my dissertation research, it was revealed that the more a competing attachment increases, the more the attachment security within the relationship decreases. As attachment security decreases, the more relationship satisfaction also decreases.

Competing attachments constitute a counterfeit attachment in which one partner turns outside of the marriage or relationship and toward something or someone else for escape, soothing, comfort or attention as a substitute for unmet attachment needs. Competing attachments can include addictions, affairs, gaming systems, smart phones, family members or anything else that might lead a spouse or partner to feel it necessary to compete with this “other” for the attachment bond with their partner.

Competing attachments vs. hobbies

It is important to distinguish the difference between a competing attachment and a hobby. Obviously, not everything that someone turns to outside of a relationship will constitute a competing attachment. Clients may have healthy attachments with other people or things that do not violate the boundaries of the romantic attachment relationship between two people and that do not create a feeling of competition for emotional time, attention or affection.

In general, hobbies do not threaten relationships because there are some emotional boundaries involved. Typically, hobbies are engaged in for general enjoyment rather than as an escape or as an alternative to the benefits of their romantic partner. Hobbies do hold the potential of turning into a competing attachment, although this doesn’t usually happen in securely attached people or relationships.

In my clinical practice, I have often heard female partners voice feeling the threat of competing attachment because their partners come home from work most nights and neglect to spend even a little bit of quality time connecting. Instead, they go straight to their gaming systems and play for hours until it’s time to put the children to bed or turn in for the night. Part of what contributes to the sense of a competing attachment is if one partner regularly turns to this “other” before they turn to their own partner or more frequently than they turn to their own partner.

Types of competing attachments

Research has yet to explore every type of competing attachment individually or their respective impact on relationship security and satisfaction, in part because new forms of competing attachment pop up and develop over time. In addition, competing attachments and their impacts can vary culturally. However, a few specific types of competing attachment have been linked to decreases in relationship security and satisfaction.

Addiction

Research on addiction and attachment helps explain how disrupted early life attachment bonds and adaptive mechanisms can, if left untreated, become barriers to emotional flexibility and bonding in adult romantic relationships. When emotional regulation and soothing have not been taught in the context of attachment bonds with a loved one, it can leave the individual more vulnerable to turning to a substance as a means of soothing and escape. On a fundamental level, failed attachment to a primary attachment figure creates alternative attachment to survival mechanisms and defenses. This eventually transitions into attachments to substances or other compulsive behaviors in an attempt to find comfort, soothing, safety, protection and security.

Substances are shown to have analgesic (pain blocking) effects that aid in the numbing out of emotionally painful experiences and situations. Individuals with addiction lack the ability to internally self-regulate their emotions. They frequently turn to substances or compulsions to regulate their feelings of pain or distressing emotional experiences. Nonchemical processes such as pornography and gambling are demonstrated to have similar effects to chemical substances on the brain and can be used by a person to achieve the same effect.

The more frequently someone turns to addictive behaviors to meet their attachment needs, the less often they will seek connection with others. The addiction eventually starts to become a substitute for human connection. Over time, this builds into a false sense of connection, or a counterfeit attachment, because a true and secure attachment bond involves a reciprocal relationship.

In romantic relationships, the consequences for the partner who is not addicted is that they are left emotionally (and, often, physically) alone to deal with emotional distress and the stresses of daily living. Additionally, it is hard to build a secure and satisfying connection with a partner who is not emotionally present, engaged or accessible because of their addiction, especially if the addiction negatively alters the person’s mood. The result is a relationship that is higher in conflict, less emotionally engaged, more unstable or insecure, and less satisfying.

Social media, gaming, smart phones

With the advancement and availability of new technology, the types and frequency of competing attachments have also changed. Internet addiction is a general term used to encompass a wide variety of online behaviors that are problematic for individuals and relationships. For example, addiction to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram has been cited as being intrusive in relationships and is associated with relationship dissatisfaction. Technoference is a term applied to the interference of technology in relationships, including romantic relationships. Another trending term is phubbing, or phone snubbing. This describes when a person turns their attention to a smart phone instead of to their romantic partner or others in a social or personal setting.

As cell phones and gaming systems have morphed from simple electronic devices to devices that encourage participation and interaction online, live human interactions have decreased. Online adult gamers have described sacrificing major aspects of their lives to maintain their online gaming status. Romantic partners report that technologies such as gaming and smart phones frequently interrupt quality time and connection, reduce instances of going to bed together at night, and affect the amount of time spent together on leisure activities. In other words, these partners feel that their relationship has taken a back seat to online gaming activity.

Those who have been phubbed report feeling that their romantic partner favors a virtual world over time and connection with them, thus sending an implicit message about what their partner values most. This has become so problematic in romantic relationships that support groups have been created for “gaming widows” suffering from technoference. Additionally, interviews have revealed that technoference lowers relationship satisfaction and increases conflict between romantic partners.

Pornography

Pornography is unique in that it can encompass two different types of competing attachments: addiction and infidelity (since many romantic partners view pornography as a form of infidelity). Often, the partner who is addicted turns to pornography as a source of stress release or to soothe feelings of shame and disconnection in the romantic relationship.

Research into the experiences of those partners who are not addicted to pornography shows that they often feel in competition with the pornography or the actors in the pornographic material. The turning outside of the relationship to an addiction has also been shown to have a negative effect on the security of the relationship bond and the level of relationship satisfaction.

Affairs and infidelity

Being unfaithful in a romantic relationship (infidelity) is considered one of the most potent threats to romantic attachment security and relationship satisfaction. Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce and one of the leading threats of competing attachment.

Unlike other forms of competing attachment, this particular form may need to occur only once for the partner to consider it a competing attachment. What constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior with someone outside of the relationship can take on different meanings for different people. For some, a one-time nonsexual encounter in which their partner turns to another may be acceptable, whereas others may find small flirtations that do not result in sexual intercourse unacceptable. For others, finding inappropriate, provocative or sexual pictures or messages exchanged between their partner and someone else may constitute infidelity. The definition of infidelity depends on how the couple delineates the boundaries of their relationship and how they define cheating.

Infidelity, even if only perceived, has the power to undermine the trust, security and satisfaction of the love relationship. Behaviors on social media that violate relational boundaries are also associated with relational insecurity and lower levels of relationship satisfaction.

Factors such as attachment security and satisfaction have been demonstrated to be both consequences and causes of infidelity. Those with secure attachment are less likely to engage in infidelity-related behaviors. There is also a link between attachment avoidance and interest in other partners, as well as strong associations between attachment insecurity and infidelity in relationships. Unmet attachment needs and low levels of relationship satisfaction may contribute to people seeking connection and sex outside of their primary love relationship. 

Rival relationships

Outside or “rival” relationships may not constitute or result in infidelity, but they can still be experienced as competing attachments to the romantic bond. A rival relationship may be any nonromantic relationship that a partner has with another person outside of their love relationship, especially if the outside person is perceived as being attractive. This could be a friend of the opposite sex. Even family members can become competing attachments in some relationships.

In rival relationships, one partner may consistently turn out to a friend or family member to discuss private emotional topics, seek comfort or validation, or share friendly connections that are not shared with their partner or spouse within the love relationship. Another example may be a partner who exchanges text messages, emails or phone calls or engages in private get-togethers with another person outside of the love relationship, particularly if their romantic partner is not invited to take part. The romantic partner may feel like they are being left out of or are on the outside of a friendship or relationship that their partner has.

In therapy, clients might complain about their partner’s closest friend of the opposite gender or an intrusive in-law whom their spouse frequently turns to for advice and emotional support. Rival relationships that involve family members, usually described by clients as “intrusive” family members, are associated with a weaker couple identity and are demonstrated to predict the quality of the couple’s bond.

Interestingly, even in cultures in which men are expected to maintain a strong alliance with their mothers after getting married, wives in these marriages often complain about feeling like they are competing with their mothers-in-law for their place in the family unit. An example might be a husband who frequently puts his mother first by meeting her every need, even after he marries. This type of competing attachment often goes unnoticed. Society tends to dismiss enmeshed mother-son relationships as being potentially problematic, despite the consequences to the son’s marriage or romantic relationship. I am not referring here to a healthy attachment bond between a mother and a son but rather to an unhealthy form of attachment (insecure bonding) that results in the failure of either person to securely and appropriately transition parts of their attachment role when necessary.

Importance to clinical practice

In each of these types of competing attachment, there exists a common link with attachment security (or lack thereof) and relationship satisfaction. As professional therapists, we know that science is clear about the importance of human attachment bonds across the life span. Primary attachment figures were initially considered important for infants and children. However, these roles were later recognized as being important for all humans at all stages, including those with whom we formulate strong romantic attachment relationships as adults.

Each person will have a different attachment style that is classified as either secure or insecure. These attachment strategies are typically stable over time. However, attachment relationship bonds can be defined separately from individuals, also as either secure or insecure. Additionally, there is plasticity in adult attachment relationships. They can shift from secure to insecure and vice versa. In romantic relationships, distress can occur when the security of the attachment relationship is threatened. This is important for therapists to understand as they work with their clients to help them shift from insecure to secure bonding and to build safe and satisfying relationships.

Competing attachments threaten the security and satisfaction of romantic attachment relationships and can become pivotal moments that redefine a couple’s relationship as unsafe. This can additionally create an impasse to relational trust and stability, both of which can negatively affect relational satisfaction. Anything that threatens the stability and satisfaction of an attachment bond is important for clinicians to know about so that they can be prepared to intervene.

Not all things that someone turns to outside of the love relationship qualify as competing attachments. To constitute a competing attachment, it must cross certain boundaries or thresholds that result in distress. If a competing attachment does exist in a relationship and is causing distress, then the relationship satisfaction will start to go down. The less secure the bond becomes between the couple and the less satisfying the relationship is, the more risk exists of the relationship becoming broken. Attachment security is strongly associated with relationship satisfaction. Both attachment security and relationship satisfaction are also important factors in relationship longevity and personal health. Relational satisfaction should remain relatively high and stable over time for most couples in securely attached relationships.

Attachment science offers a guidepost for treatment strategies and interventions for couples who come to therapy reporting the presence of competing attachment.

Treatment recommendations

If a couple comes to your practice complaining of a competing attachment or hinting at the possibility of one, consider asking a few assessment questions. These questions are based off of the Competing Attachment Scale that I created with emotionally focused therapy trainer Rebecca Jorgensen and UCLA professor Rory Reid in 2015 for my dissertation study.

1) Have you experienced in the past or do you currently experience a sense of competition with the activities or relationships in which your partner engages?

2) Do you feel like your partner turns elsewhere outside of the relationship to have their needs met rather than turning to you?

3) Do you feel hurt, bothered or upset by this?

4) Do you feel like this has been a problem in your relationship, created a lot of conflict or affected your ability to get close with or have a healthy bond with your partner?

Also consider the following treatment recommendations for couples reporting distress due to a competing attachment:

  • Clearly identify and understand how the competing attachment is part of a couple’s relational system (their negative interaction pattern or cycle).
  • Identify the competing attachment as an alternative (and ineffective) way of coping with/not dealing with emotional distress or not getting needs met (maladaptive behavior).
  • Help couples turn toward each other as secure bases/safe havens to help co-regulate moments of emotional distress.
  • Help couples find alternative ways of coping with emotional dysregulation that don’t create relational distress or violate relationship boundaries.
  • Help couples identify their emotional/attachment needs and be able to ask for these needs to be met in their relationship.

 

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For more information on adult attachment research, or to find clinical training in your area, visit the websites of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and its founder, Sue Johnson.

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Anabelle Bugatti is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Las Vegas. She is a certified emotionally focused supervisor and therapist and is the president of the Southern Nevada Community for Emotionally Focused Therapy. She has a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Northcentral University. Her new book, Using Relentless Empathy in Therapeutic Relationships: Connecting With Challenging and Resistant Clients, is slated for release at the end of the year. Contact her at anabellebugattimft@gmail.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The marital paradox

By Guillermo Cancio-Bello and Jim Rudes July 14, 2020

“In relationship with others, people are free to engage in goal-directed activity, or to lose ‘self’ in the intimacy of a close relationship.” — Murray Bowen

There is no shortage of strained marriages. Two people who were once close can grow distant over time and become entrenched in their own positions, which they come to see as being antithetical to those of their spouse. The things they once cherished or found charming have since faded or become an annoyance. Where there was once agreement, now there is discord. Where there was once calm, now the waters are riled. Comfort has turned to uncertainty, and the house once filled with laughter now pulses with quiet (or not so quiet) tensions.

Rarely do couples come in for counseling until the discomfort of that distance, in whatever form it presents, has exceeded their ability to cope with the difficulty and strain it creates. But how does this happen? How can two people who started out so close with each other become so distant?

People are drawn to the comfort, support, intimacy, affection and validation that marriage can offer. That desire for closeness pulls us together. However, when the harmony of that relationship is disrupted, problems begin in the places where each partner has been using the relationship to prop themselves up or ease their personal anxieties in some way. Where one partner suddenly feels invalidated, the other feels wronged by a disagreement. Where one spouse feels anger over the other’s opinion, the other person retreats from their partner’s criticism. The forms these disruptions can take are endless.

What happened?

In the beginning of a relationship, most of us are more flexible and adaptable in the presence of the other than we otherwise might be. We put on a layer of maturity that doesn’t necessary reflect our true level of functioning. We are able to do this because the nature of the relationship early on has less tension. We listen to the other, we share our opinions openly, we ask questions and engage in conversation, we are curious about our partner and their views, and we are warm, kind and affectionate. Our immaturities somehow become minimized. And thank goodness that is the case, or else we might never get together.

However, that layer of maturity we put on is temporary. It is a reaction to the pull of closeness and harmony with the other. We are not implying that this action is all pretend or fake but rather that part of it does not reflect the reality of our functioning. It is a mechanism that fosters the closeness both individuals desire.

When that maturity slips off, and when our immaturities rear their heads, each individual in the relationship can begin to wonder what happened to the other. Each person begins to assume that the other has changed, and each assumes that the other is the one inhibiting the restoration of intimacy and harmony. This is the distance that pushes apart people who were once so close. Both become entrenched in their position that the other is the problem, and the relationship patterns that maintain the distance become fixed.

This is when people tend to seek counseling. So, what can we do as professional counselors? Working from the framework of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory has helped us acquire and maintain perspective about the relationship between two people. Its systemic underpinnings allow us to conceptualize the relationship without placing blame or seeing fault in one partner or the other. The theory focuses on the processes between people rather than the content of the arguments, which can create a din of noise in which both counselor and clients can easily become entangled and lost.

Focusing on the  ‘other’ as the problem

All marriages have tensions and difficulties because any two-person relationship has instabilities built into it. People want to be together with others, but they also want to maintain their autonomy. When things are working well in a relationship, people feel connected but also free to be themselves. When people feel too close or too distant, it causes a disruption in the individual and, ultimately, in the relationship.

We want attention from our partners, but we can become allergic to too much of it, pushing the other away or distancing ourselves emotionally from them. And when we get the space we think we want, we can feel unappreciated and look for affection and validation to make us feel connected and secure. In this emotional seesaw, each person becomes sensitive to the other and what they do or say and can begin to focus on them as the problem: If only my partner would give me more attention. If only my partner would step up and do their part. If only they would listen to me. If only, if only, if only …

The reality is that both parties contribute to any relationship difficulty. That is the nature of reciprocity, but it is a fact that we all have trouble seeing when we are in the midst of relationship tensions and the emotions and anxiety they produce.

The more that tension and anxiety build, the more reactive people get, and the more they unwittingly contribute to the reciprocity, or mutually influenced pattern, that maintains the “problem.” When people get anxious and reactive, they tend to focus on what is wrong in or with the other rather than looking at what they are doing, how they are contributing to the maintenance of the “problem,” and what their options for changing their own thinking and behavior might be.

Especially in intimate relationships, people can get bogged down in the tensions of feeling misunderstood, neglected or mistreated in one way or another. It can be difficult for individuals in a relationship to see beyond the dust cloud of an argument, a history of small misunderstandings, the minute experiences of neglect that one feels toward the other but has never vocalized, and so on. These histories build because people want stability and harmony in the moment and are willing to sacrifice some autonomy for that without realizing they are contributing to a process that will later result in an eruption.

In our experience, many initial sessions with couples begin with an attempt by both parties to pull the counselor into a he said, she said tug of war. Both want the comfort of togetherness with their counselor, albeit at the expense of their relationship with each other. We believe it is the counselor’s responsibility to stay out of it. The minute that clinicians start seeing one partner or the other as an angel or demon, they have lost their objective footing.

The two overarching and interlocking steps counselors can take to guide people through the process of working on themselves in their relationships are:

1) Help each person increase their perspective of how they relate to their partner.

2) Help each person work on themselves in the present.

As with any idea, the simpler it seems, the more difficult it is.

Increasing perspective: Seeing the reciprocity

Helping people increase perspective begins with the counselor’s ability to maintain a larger perspective. Rather than seeing sides of the relationship, the goal is to focus on the processes and patterns to which both parties contribute, much like a coach looking over the field from above and watching what each player does. If the counselor is able to keep perspective, they can be useful to their clients by helping them gain a larger view of what is going on in their relationship.

Step 1: Decrease anxiety. Nothing can happen until the anxiety in each individual comes down to a level at which they can both work on their part. Often, just talking can help bring down the anxiety. Setting up your expectations (as the counselor) for the session can also help limit the escalation of tensions. One of the biggest factors in decreasing the anxiety when a couple is in the room is the counselor’s ability to remain objective and neutral.

Step 2: Take a step back. Have the couple take a step back from the intensity of the moment by widening the lens they are using to view the problem. Often, each person is hyper-focused on the other, so taking a step back means having each person shift their focus off the other and onto their own functioning. When one person begins talking about what the other is doing, you can help them shift the focus by asking questions about their thinking on their own behavior and thoughts.

For example, if one person begins telling you how the other never says anything, never has an opinion, and is just so limp and passive, you might respond with questions about what they do and think when their partner does those things or what they are doing and thinking before the other partner reacts passively. Conversely, when one partner tells you that the other partner is angry all the time, comes at them with high intensity and is critical, you might question what they do when that happens or how often they anticipate their partner’s intense reactions.

Step 3: Highlight the reciprocity. Continually point out the reciprocity in the “problem” — the fact that each person is contributing in some way to the maintenance of what is going on. Highlighting the reciprocity helps each person begin to recognize that they are an equal participant in what is going on in the relationship, and it furthers the process of each individual shifting their view of the other as the problem to focusing on their own functioning. Using the example above, you might point out to the couple how interesting it is that each time one partner gets intense, the other becomes passive, and how when one becomes more passive, the other gets more intense.

The beauty of this perspective is that it is never up to one person to change the other. There is always something for each person to work on individually, and in doing so, each person is also working on the relationship. There is always a way to move because the processes between two people are constant and ever flowing, even if the participants are locked into automatic and reactive behaviors. A change in one person sets off a change in the process between the two. It is nonsensical for one person to blame the other because they are each contributing, and have contributed, to what is going on between them in the present.

This shift in focus — from off of the other and onto the self — is necessary for each person to move forward effectively. If this shift isn’t made, people tend to either get stuck in conflict or give up more and more of the self to keep the relationship stable. A little conflict is better than a false stability.

Working on self in the present: Working on the reciprocity

Taking a step back and gaining perspective allows people to reenter the tensions of the present moment with more clarity because the focus has shifted from off of the other and onto the self. Once that shift in focus has been made, people can work on managing their emotions and anxieties in the here and now. But these two steps are inextricable because the knowledge gained by looking at and understanding one’s part in relationship patterns is the catalyst for better managing self in the present.

Step 1: Watch the reciprocity. Once each person has begun to see the reciprocity and recognize that they are an equal contributor to the relationship tensions, then they can begin to work on their part. The first step is helping each person become an expert on how they contribute to the reciprocity. What you are doing as a counselor is moving the clients’ thinking from a cause-and-effect framework to a systemic framework in which the rule is reciprocity.

After seeing it, people can begin to be aware of the reciprocity in the present. That awareness might show up in session as one person reflecting on how when their partner got angry, they “retreated again.” In response, their partner increased their intensity, and this person reacted to that increase by shutting down. The client’s focus is now on the process and their part in it.

Step 2: Work on the reciprocity. As each person becomes an expert on their part in the process between the two, they simultaneously begin to work on themselves in the present moment and in the reciprocity that is always ongoing. As the partner from the example above begins to see that their “retreating” and “shutting down” contribute to the other partner’s increasing intensity, they can begin to work on staying engaged in the relationship under pressure. This might begin with noticing their impulse to retreat and staying in the conversation a bit longer than they normally would despite the “feeling.”

In other words, they are tolerating the discomfort of the feeling, but that tolerance is driven by a thoughtful framework regarding the nature of reciprocity and their part in that process. It might mean recognizing that the partner’s intensity is not a critique on them but is rather about their partner’s own functioning. Thus, the first partner may begin to take things less personally. We could go on and on here, but the point is that this person begins to be less caught up in the emotional intensity of the moment. In doing so, the person is able to be less reactive and more thoughtful in what they do and how they do it. The more they work on themselves in the reciprocity, the more options they have in how they function, and the greater the chance for the relationship to improve.

We focused on one partner above, but we could do the same exercise with the other partner. That person would begin by seeing the reciprocity of increased intensity by them and withdrawal by the other partner. They might begin to watch their own functioning, recognizing that the more intense they get, the more their partner retreats. They might notice that when the other retreats, their own intensity automatically increases. They might begin to work on managing that impulse and their facial expressions, tone of voice and so on in the presence of the other. And in working on themselves, they might begin to see that they are working on the relationship.

The challenge as the counselor is to continually bring the focus of the session back to the process of what is going on, or has gone on, and to stay out of the content. Any couple will tend to slide back into content — who said or did what to whom — when tensions and anxieties rise. It is the counselor’s work to stay neutral and objective and to point back to the process of what is going on.

Just as the paradox of marriage is for each individual to manage the self, the paradox of counseling is that the counselor must manage the self rather than try to change whomever is sitting before them. We see the work of the counselor as being no different than the work we perceive as useful to clients. In other words, if the counselor is getting lost in the content of a couple’s argument, then the counselor is not managing their own self, and their anxieties have taken over. But if the counselor can stay focused on the process of how the couple argue, how this contributes to the larger patterns of their relationship, and how that is tied to a history of behavior of which they both are a part, then the counselor is being useful in some way and is managing the self, at least a little bit.

 

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Guillermo Cancio-Bello is director of the November Institute, where he works to bring natural family systems thinking to the lives of individuals, families and organizations in the pursuit of growth through a deeper understanding of human relationships. He is currently undertaking a Ph.D. in counseling at Barry University and lives in Miami with his wife and two dogs. Contact him at thenovemberinstitute@gmail.com or visit thenovemberinstitute.com.

Jim Rudes is an associate professor of counseling in the Adrian Dominican School of Education at Barry University. He has more than 20 years of clinical experience, and for the last several years has devoted most of his professional energy to the study of family systems through the lens of natural family systems theory. His current research interests are concerned with emotional process versus content, and the light at the end of the tunnel. Contact him at jrudes@barry.edu.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Recovering from the trauma of infidelity

By Lindsey Phillips April 1, 2020

Most people agree that a sexual affair counts as infidelity, but what about sending a flirty text? What if your partner takes out several loans and acquires a large debt without your knowledge? Does engaging in virtual sex with someone other than your partner, connecting with an ex on social media or maintaining an online dating profile even though you are already in a relationship count as betrayal? The answer depends on how the people in the relationship define infidelity.

A recent study commissioned by Deseret News found conflicting answers when 1,000 people were polled about what constitutes “cheating.” The majority of respondents (71%-76%) said that physical sexual contact with someone outside of the relationship would always meet the threshold for cheating. However, a slimmer majority thought that maintaining an online dating profile (63%) or sending flirtatious messages to someone else (51%) should always be considered cheating. The lines on whether following an ex on social media constituted a betrayal were even more ambiguous: 16% said it was always cheating, 45% thought it was sometimes cheating, and 39% answered that it never was.

As this poll illustrates, how one defines infidelity is subjective. Thus, Talal Alsaleem, a leading expert in the field of infidelity counseling and author of Infidelity: The Best Worst Thing That Could Happen to Your Marriage: The Complete Guide on How to Heal From Affairs, stresses the importance of clearly defining infidelity in session. “A lot of therapists make the mistake of not putting enough attention into defining infidelity,” Alsaleem says. “From the first session, if we don’t agree on what to call it, we cannot go any further” because correctly identifying the problem guides which counseling interventions will be used.

If counselors set the stage poorly from the beginning, they risk alienating one or both parties, he adds. For instance, referring to infidelity as “inappropriate behavior” risks minimizing the betrayal. On the other hand, clients and counselors could exaggerate an issue if they refer to something being infidelity when it really wasn’t.

Alsaleem, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice at Happily Ever After Counseling & Coaching in Roseville, California, points out that when defining infidelity, research often relies on heteronormative values, which excludes any relationship that does not fit the “traditional” model (read: a heterosexual, married couple). To account for the various types of relationships that exist and people’s microcultures and macrocultures, Alsaleem developed a flexible definition of infidelity that can work for all of his clients, including those who are LGBTQ+ or polyamorous.

“All relationships should have a contract — whether verbal or written — that stipulates the number of the partners in the relationship … the emotional and sexual needs that are expected to be fulfilled in this relationship, and to what extent those needs are exclusive to the partners in the relationship,” Alsaleem explains. “So, infidelity is a breach of contract of exclusivity that you have with the partner(s) … and it’s outsourcing those needs to others outside the relationship without the consent of the partner(s).”

Although having a relationship contract is helpful, it is much less so if the partners maintain implicit expectations of each other that aren’t covered in the contract or if they allow the contract to become static, says Alsaleem, founder of the Infidelity Counseling Center. “It’s very crucial for people not only to have a clear contract in the beginning but also to continue to have those discussions [about their relationship expectations] on a regular basis,” he says.

Alsaleem believes his definition of infidelity not only works for clients of various backgrounds but also provides counselors with a buffer from their own biases about what infidelity is. When it comes to infidelity counseling, “therapists tend to confuse therapeutic neutrality with thinking that they don’t have a role to play,” he says. He asserts that his definition allows therapists to remain neutral without minimizing accountability.

Cyber-infidelity

Technology has provided new frontiers in infidelity because it offers higher accessibility, greater anonymity and opportunities for cyber-infidelity, says Alsaleem, who presented on this topic at the 2020 conference of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of the American Counseling Association. In fact, technological advancements such as virtual reality pornography and teledildonics — technology that allows people to experience physical tactile sensations virtually — are adding new layers of complexity to infidelity and relationships.

People can use technology to escape real-world problems and reinvent themselves, Alsaleem notes. One of his clients suffered from erectile dysfunction. Because of the shame and stigma associated with his condition, he turned to virtual sex as a way to accommodate for the deficit rather than dealing with the issue with his wife.

“Because [technology] is a new frontier, it’s an unchartered territory. Not too many people can agree on what’s appropriate or what’s inappropriate online infidelity behavior because we don’t have a reference point for it,” Alsaleem says. “That ambiguity makes it easier for people to cross those lines because in their minds, they’re not doing anything bad.”

Alsaleem worked with another couple who were in a happy relationship, but their sexual intimacy had decreased because of common life stressors such as work and parenting. Rather than talk to his wife about it, the husband started watching pornography, which evolved into virtual sex. When the wife discovered this, she felt betrayed, but the husband didn’t think his actions constituted an affair because it wasn’t happening in the real world. He considered virtual sex to be an acceptable alternative to “real cheating.”

Situations such as this one further emphasize the need to clearly define infidelity and establish a relationship contract, says Alsaleem, who points out that the good thing about his definition of infidelity is that it applies to both real world and virtual world affairs. Using his definition, counselors could work with a couple to help a partner realize that virtual sex is a form of infidelity by asking, “Was there an agreement between you and your partner that all your sexual needs would be fulfilled by them only?” If the partner acknowledges that this agreement was in place, then the counselor could ask, “Is what you did derivative of sexual needs? If so, did you outsource this need to someone else?” This form of questioning would help the partner realize that he or she did in fact breach the contract of exclusivity.

Transcending relationship dissatisfaction

Relationship dissatisfaction is a common cause of infidelity, but it is far from the only cause. Alsaleem recommends that counselors consider three categories when working with infidelity.

The first is dyadic factors, which are any relationship issues that lead to the couple not having their sexual or emotional needs met by each other.

The second category is individual factors — each partner’s personal history and overall mental health. Counselors should ask about clients’ family history and previous mental health issues, not just their relationship history, Alsaleem advises. He points out that some mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder and narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, may increase the likelihood of infidelity.

People who experienced sexual trauma at an early age are also more likely to engage in infidelity as adults because the trauma may have affected their attachment, sexual identity and the type of relationships they have in adulthood, Alsaleem adds.

The third category is sociocultural factors, including a person’s job, culture, family, friends, lifestyle, environmental stressors, etc. Survey data taken from Ashley Madison, a website that helps married people have affairs, reveal that certain careers and occupations are more correlated with infidelity. These careers typically involve frequent travel; expose people to trauma; feature long, stressful hours; or offer unhealthy work environments (among the examples provided were military personnel, first responders, nurses, police officers and people in sales). This finding illustrates how one’s sociocultural factors can facilitate infidelity behavior, Alsaleem notes.

Treating the trauma

Sometimes clients who experience a partner’s infidelity meet the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Gabrielle Usatynski, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and founder of Power Couples Counseling in Boulder and Louisville, Colorado. In fact, because the emotional response to infidelity (e.g., ruminating thoughts, sleep problems, erratic behaviors and moods, health problems, depression) can mirror responses to other traumatic events, some therapists have started using the term post-infidelity stress disorder to describe this parallel.

“If you pull up the DSM-5 and look up the PTSD criteria and change the word traumatic event to infidelity, it’s almost going to be picture perfect in terms of the symptom criteria,” Alsaleem points out. “There will be triggers, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance behavior, and manifestations related to the knowledge about the affair and everything related to the affair.”

The fallout from infidelity can also spill over into other roles that people occupy, such as being a parent or a professional. This can lead to guilt and shame if they are not performing well in another area because they are preoccupied with the trauma of the betrayal, he says.

Despite having worked for a while with couples in crisis, Alsaleem found that none of the counseling tools he had acquired over the years adequately dealt with infidelity. If counselors use a generic trauma-informed approach with infidelity, they may have a strategy to handle the sensitivity of the issue, but they won’t have a clear understanding of the obstacles and the steps needed to overcome them, he says.

Alsaleem started jotting down observations of his clients dealing with infidelity and discovered several struggles that these clients shared regardless of the type of relationships they had, the length of their relationships, or their cultural or religious backgrounds. These shared struggles included defining infidelity, handling the emotional impact of infidelity, and navigating the significance of the affair narrative. Alsaleem’s observations led him to develop systematic affair recovery therapy (SART), which provides counselors with a treatment method for helping couples process and heal from the trauma of sexual and emotional infidelity.

SART describes seven milestones clients go through as they heal from infidelity:

  • Setting the stage for healing
  • Getting the story
  • Acknowledging the impact
  • Choosing a path
  • Creating a plan of action
  • Implementation and healing pains
  • Sustainability

“Your role [as a counselor] is to help them process what happened, to make sense of it, so this trauma does not define the rest of their lives, whether as a dyad who are rebuilding the relationship or as individuals who have decided to separate and move on to other relationships,” Alsaleem says.

He warns that the process isn’t easy because clients often come in with knee-jerk reactions about what they want to do. Counselors must help clients resist making impulsive decisions and instead encourage them to make up their minds after completing the proper steps and understanding why they are making their decision, Alsaleem says.

With affair recovery, Jennifer Meyer, an LPC in private practice in Fort Collins, Colorado, finds it helpful to have couples write down their feelings and emotions, which can be intense. From the beginning, she asks couples to share a journal and write their feelings back and forth to each other.

After the couple has had time to identify and process the cause of the infidelity, Meyer asks the partner who has been unfaithful to write an apology letter and to read it to the injured partner in session. In this letter, the offending party conveys that they understand the pain they have caused and feel remorse for their actions. Even if the couple decides not to stay together, the letter helps repair the damage caused by the infidelity, and the partners can move forward (and, eventually, into new relationships) without carrying the pain and trauma with them, Meyer says.

Navigating the affair narrative

Some therapists avoid having clients share details about the infidelity because they fear it will create more harm or retraumatize clients, Alsaleem says. He argues that narrating the affair is a painful yet crucial part of recovery that can help facilitate healing if done with the right level of disclosure.

Alsaleem dedicates an entire day in his SART training program to teaching counselors how to help clients share their affair stories without retraumatizing both parties (by sharing too much or too little information) and without minimizing or exaggerating what happened. With infidelity counseling, “every mistake counts,” he says. “When people are coming in after the discovery of infidelity, whether it’s recent or from the past, they are very fragile, so that’s when you need to be strategic and adaptive and plan each intervention and how to respond to the outcome of the intervention.”

Meyer, a member of both ACA and IAMFC, often finds that clients want to ask the offending partner multiple detailed questions about the intricacies of the affair. Meyer is aware that the answers to these questions have the potential to create even more hurt and trauma for her clients, so she is honest with couples about this possibility and guides them through the process.

Alsaleem provides a brief example of how counselors can determine the appropriate level of disclosure when clients share their affair stories (but he advises clinicians to seek further training before trying this approach). He first asks the offending partner to be proactively transparent when sharing the affair story. They shouldn’t hide anything, he says, and they should go out of their way to show the injured partner(s) the unpleasant truths that led to the affair. This is done not to traumatize, he emphasizes, but to show the offending partner’s capacity to be open and honest.

Alsaleem also tells injured clients that they can ask anything they want about the affair. But before they ask, he helps them determine whether the question will help them understand what type of affair it was or why the affair happened. If so, then it is a fair question, he says.

For example, a client dealing with a partner’s sexual infidelity may want to ask, “What specific sexual activities did you engage in?” If the partner who was unfaithful is dealing with a sexual addiction (an individual issue), then the specific sexual activity is not important to understanding the motivation or what went wrong in the relationship, Alsaleem says. However, if the infidelity occurred because of a compatibility issue (a dyadic issue), then that would be a fair question because the betrayed would discover in what ways they are no longer fulfilling their partner’s sexual needs, he explains. 

“The need behind the question [can be] healthy and appropriate, but sometimes [clients are] not asking the right question because they don’t know how to address that need,” Alsaleem adds. He advises counselors to ask clients what they are trying to learn about the story with their questions and help them figure out if these questions are the best way to obtain that information while avoiding further traumatization.   

Affairs can evoke intense emotions in session, especially when discussing the affair story. To ensure that emotions don’t escalate to an unproductive level, Meyer uses a preframe such as “You seem calm at the moment, but this is difficult, and I want to ensure you can both talk without being interrupted. If things get out of hand, I’m going to ask for a timeout. You can both ask for a timeout as well.”

Meyer also uses her own body language — such as scooting up in her chair or standing up — if clients start yelling uncontrollably, or she physically separates them for a few minutes by having them take turns going to the restroom or getting a glass of water. These subtle changes help clients calm down and not get stuck in fighting, she explains.

Creating an imbalance to facilitate healing

Usatynski, an ACA member who specializes in couples therapy, approaches infidelity counseling differently from couples therapy where betrayal is not the presenting issue. In ordinary couples therapy, she strives to keep therapy as balanced as possible, focusing equally on the complaints of both partners and the unresolved issues that each brings to the relationship. But when infidelity is involved, she intentionally creates an imbalance of power and initially allows the injured party to have all of the power. The offending party, on the other hand, does not get to bring any of their complaints about their partner or their relationship to the table until they have successfully addressed the injured partner’s distress. This treatment works only if the offending party expresses true regret for the harm they have caused their partner and expresses a genuine desire to rebuild the relationship, Usatynski adds.

Usatynski’s approach comes from a psychobiological approach to couple therapy (PACT), which is a fusion of attachment theory, developmental neuroscience and arousal regulation developed by Stan Tatkin. When betrayal is the presenting issue, this method requires that clients move through three phases as they process and attempt to repair their relationship.

The first phase addresses the trauma the injured client has experienced by allowing them to express all of their emotions about the betrayal. “It’s when people feel like they have to hold back [emotions] or they can’t get angry or there’s nobody there to listen to them that actually creates trauma or at least makes it worse,” Usatynski says.

The partner who was betrayed can also ask any question they want about the affair during this phase, and the offending partner has to answer honestly. Many therapists who work with betrayal are concerned about the injured partner being traumatized by finding out the truth, Usatynski says. She admits this is a valid concern, so therapists should support the injured partner throughout the process. However, she advises that therapists not shy away from the truth coming out because, as she explains, the only way to repair the relationship or build something new is with total transparency.

If clients are hesitant to ask about the affair, therapists need to explore this hesitation with them. The injured partner may say that they don’t want to know what happened out of an inability to deal with feelings of loss and the practical implications of the relationship ending, Usatynski adds.

During this initial phase, the offending partner has no power to negotiate. They must simply sit and endure the rage and inquiry of the person whom they betrayed, Usatynski explains.

The second phase of PACT involves the offending partner providing the betrayed with whatever support is needed to correct the injury to the attachment bond between them, Usatynski says. This phase could involve declarations of commitment, appreciation or praise, as well as loving actions on the part of the offending partner. However, only the injured partner can decide what behaviors are reparative, she explains. The goal of this phase is resolution.

During the third phase, the injured partner lets the offending partner out of the “doghouse” and, together, the couple decide the new rules and new relationship contract they will have going forward, Usatynski says.

According to PACT, the dysregulation of one’s nervous system (such as during states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal) may lead to discord between the couple, Usatynski says. Thus, counselors should not only track clients for signs of dysregulation but also teach couples how to track each other’s nervous systems.

When Usatynski notices a client showing signs of dysregulation (e.g., changes in skin color, posture or vocal tone), she will ask the other partner if they recognize the change. For example, she might say, “Did you see how your partner’s skin color just changed when he or she said that? What do you think is going on with him or her right now?”

The goal is interactive regulation — the couple learning the specific strategies that soothe, regulate and excite each other, Usatynski notes. “These tracking skills are particularly important in the aftermath of betrayal because … [they help the offending partner] develop a greater awareness of how their behavior affects their partner. These skills also boost sensitivity and empathy,” she explains.

A silver lining?

Alsaleem compares infidelity to a heart attack for the relationship. “It’s a critical wake-up call,” he explains. “It forces [clients] to really lay all the cards on the table and make an informed decision.” Do they commit to fixing all of the deficits and work toward having a better, stronger relationship, or do they end their relationship and find new, healthier relationships?

Alsaleem says several of his clients began therapy devastated by the trauma of infidelity, but by the end, they admitted they were almost glad it had happened because it ultimately led them to having the relationship they always wanted with their partner. For some people, infidelity is the catalyst that ultimately allows them to get unstuck, he explains.

When clients decide to repair their relationship, Meyer helps them develop a new, explicitly stated contract regarding the rules in their relationship moving forward. She asks them to write down their agreement about these new relationship rules (including how quickly they would inform their partner that they experienced a compromising situation and what constitutes infidelity going forward) and ways they could be vulnerable to future affairs.

“As counselors, we can’t assume every couple wants or needs strict monogamy,” Meyer adds. So, this new agreement can take many forms depending on the relationship. For example, partners in a committed relationship may agree that being involved with another person sexually is OK as long as they discuss it first with their partner or keep everything in the open.

Of course, clients in infidelity counseling may also decide to end their relationship. Even so, by showing up to counseling, clients have taken the first step toward ensuring that infidelity does not define the rest of their lives, Alsaleem notes.

“Infidelity is an awful event, but it doesn’t have to be devastating. It actually has a silver lining. Infidelity — as awful as it is to experience, as awful as it is to happen — can actually be a good thing to help people change their lives,” Alsaleem says. “If treated appropriately, it can actually enrich people’s lives and make them more resilient and make them better in the long run.”

 

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Related reading: An online companion article to this feature, “Helping clients rebuild after separation or divorce,” provides strategies for helping clients to process their grief and start over.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Finding strength in sensitivity

By Lindsey Phillips September 24, 2019

When Louisa Lombard, a licensed professional clinical counselor in private practice in California, worked as a school counselor, parents would sometimes come to her saying, “My child is so sensitive. I don’t know why he’s like this. Everything is such a big deal. I parent my children the same way. Why is he like this? His brother’s doing great in school and not throwing tantrums and crying. What’s wrong with this kid?”

In actuality, nothing was “wrong” with the child. What the parents didn’t know was that their child had an innate temperament trait referred to as sensory processing sensitivity. Approximately 20% of the population has this sensitivity trait and is categorized as a “highly sensitive person.” Narrow that focus to the therapeutic world, and closer to 50% of psychotherapy clients possess this trait, according to Elaine Aron, a pioneer in the field of sensitivity, in Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person.

People with this trait often look carefully before entering new situations or retreat from overwhelming ones. For this reason, they are sometimes mislabeled as being shy, when in fact, an estimated 30% of highly sensitive people are extraverted.

Because no one person’s experience is the same, Aron identified four basic characteristics of the highly sensitive person (also known as the DOES model):

  • Depth of processing
  • Overstimulation
  • Emotional responsiveness and empathy
  • Sensitivity to subtleties

Aron points out that the sensory processing sensitivity trait is a survival advantage in some situations because it allows individuals to process information more thoroughly and increases their responsiveness to the environment and social stimuli.

So, why do highly sensitive people — who have this survival advantage — make up roughly 50% of therapy clients? Julie Bjelland, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in California, thinks the number is so high because highly sensitive people are a) more responsive to therapeutic work and self-help and b) more likely to have higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Heather Smith, an assistant professor of human development counseling at Vanderbilt University, posits that because these individuals process deeply, they are more inclined to seek out answers and are drawn to counseling for its penetrating conversations. In addition, she says, these clients may have developed low self-esteem because of negative stereotypes about sensitivity, or they might want tools to help them navigate times when they feel more emotional intensity.   

Misdiagnosing a trait for a disorder

According to Erica Sawyer, an American Counseling Association member in private practice in Vancouver, Washington, misdiagnosis of the highly sensitive person often occurs because people aren’t aware that the trait exists or of the trait’s specific characteristics. The scientific name for the trait — sensory processing sensitivity — doesn’t help. The similarity in name between sensory processing sensitivity and sensory processing disorder often leads to confusion. But sensory processing sensitivity is a temperament trait, not a disorder. (Aron notes on The Highly Sensitive Person website, hsperson.com, that sensory processing disorder, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder involving the senses.)

As Lombard points out, most therapists receive limited training on temperaments. She first learned about sensory processing sensitivity after graduate school when her oldest daughter started showing signs of the trait, including being sensitive to noise, facial expressions and food. As Lombard learned more, she realized that she is also highly sensitive. She had long suspected that she had attention-deficit disorder because she had a hard time paying attention in her college classes if another student was kicking a desk in a rhythmic pattern behind her or if there was a bright light overhead in the room.

In fact, because highly sensitive people can get overwhelmed and overstimulated more easily when a lot is going on around them, they can commonly be misdiagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Bjelland says. However, whereas a highly sensitive person is typically able to concentrate in the right environment — when at home in a quiet room, for example — someone with ADHD might not be, she explains.

One confusing aspect to the highly sensitive temperament is that it doesn’t necessarily produce problems in daily life other than overstimulation, says Smith, a licensed professional counselor and an ACA member. Thus, when clinicians hear about a client’s distress due to overstimulation, they can erroneously attribute it to symptoms of a disorder, she explains. To help prevent this, Smith recommends that counselors investigate whether a client’s issue (such as anxiety, stress or an inability to concentrate) decreases if he or she is no longer in an overstimulating environment. If the client’s issue is still present, then it might be a symptom of a disorder.

Smith also points out that counselors often rely on observable behaviors to indicate a possible symptom or disorder. However, depth of processing is not easily observable, she notes. To help counselors learn to identify this characteristic, Smith describes some cues: Highly sensitive people think more about the meaning of life. If in an environment where they are not overstimulated and their ideas are valued, they have the ability to describe all facets of a problem and generate potential prevention steps or solutions — often before others realize there is a problem. They are observers, not the ones to jump into action. They often don’t make decisions quickly. When they speak, it seems as though they have grasped the insight or concept quickly, in large part because they have been thinking about all of these connections for most of their lives.

One tool that can help counselors assess for sensory processing sensitivity is Aron’s 27-item self-test (see hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test). Smith, Julie Sriken and Bradley Erford analyzed the strength of this scale and found it to be a valid screening instrument that counselors can use in their practices (see “Clinical and Research Utility of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale” published in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling.) Smith presented on this topic at the ACA 2019 Conference.

However, to avoid labeling, Smith cautions counselors against placing too great an emphasis on the cutoff score of this self-test. Instead, she recommends having a conversation about how the client marked each item on the scale. This approach focuses less on the total score and more on the person’s experience overall and with each item.

Smith also advises counselors to be careful about interpreting the results from these test items or problem-solving a client’s distress too early on the basis of these initial conversations. In addition to risking misdiagnosis, counselors run the risk of not being seen as credible by clients who have been deeply thinking about issues related to this trait for a while, she says.

Wired differently

Misunderstandings about the sensory processing sensitivity trait also occur when it is assumed that this population is just sensitive to lights and sounds. It is more than that. The brains of highly sensitive people are wired differently than the brains of other people. A 2018 post on the website Highly Sensitive Refuge notes four differences in the brains of highly sensitive people:

  • Their brains respond to dopamine differently.
  • Their mirror neurons (which allow people to “mirror” the behaviors of others and be more empathetic) are more active.
  • They experience emotions more vividly than others (as enhanced by their ventromedial prefrontal cortex).
  • Their brains are more finely tuned to noticing and interpreting other people.

A recent fMRI study published in Brain and Behavior found that highly sensitive people have increased brain activation in regions related to awareness, action planning, empathy, and self-other processing. Lombard, who specializes in working with teenagers and adults who are highly sensitive, shows clients brain scan images from studies such as this one to illustrate how the highly sensitive brain differs in emotional situations such as watching a scary movie or seeing a picture of a loved one. She finds that these images help normalize the trait for clients.

On a podcast for Unapologetically Sensitive, Esther Bergsma, a counselor in the Netherlands and an expert on high sensitivity, reported that highly sensitive people have more brain activation, especially in the areas surrounding social context (e.g., wondering what others think about them, how others view them, or if others accept them). Bergsma pointed out that always being tuned into social contexts is a strength; it is only when people can’t regulate their emotions well that it leads to increased anxiety and stress.

Because people who are highly sensitive have to process more information and can experience nervous system overload as a result, they can be prone to chronic health conditions if they do not have adequate self-care and downtime, says Bjelland, author of The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person: How to Harness Your Sensitivity Into Strength in a Chaotic World.

She likens the way that highly sensitive people deeply process information to cups of water being dumped into the nervous system (“the container”). Highly sensitive people might have 100 cups that they dump into the container, whereas other people have only a few cups to dump. In other words, these individuals notice and process more detail. For example, a highly sensitive child in a classroom might simultaneously notice that a teacher is upset and the happy expression on a classmate’s face across the room and a tree branch tapping against the classroom window.

One way to simplify these brain differences is to think of the brain as two parts: the emotional brain and the cognitive brain. The emotional part of the brain in highly sensitive people is more activated, and if it becomes too activated, the cognitive part of the brain goes to sleep in a sense, Bjelland says. “That’s why [highly sensitive people] might have a hard time with emotional regulation and can get stuck in worry, rumination, anxiety and overwhelm,” she explains. “During times of high stress, the brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, so it sends out alarm bells in the system to prepare for fighting or fleeing. In those moments, [highly sensitive people] can’t even access facts, memory and rational thought because that all comes from [the] cognitive brain.”

However, counselors can teach clients ways to reactivate the cognitive brain to support their system and to let the brain know that it isn’t time to send out those alarms, Bjelland continues. For example, she uses a simple breathing technique to calm the body and let the brain know that the person isn’t in danger. Clients breathe in for four counts, hold for two counts, and exhale for seven; they repeat this for about five to seven breath cycles. “The exhale is very long and slow because that sends a signal to your brain that you are not in danger and that it can stop sending out adrenaline and stress hormones. When you exhale slowly, your brain realizes you are OK because that is not how you breathe when you’re in danger,” she explains.

The counting part (whether done out loud or silently) is important because it helps “wake up” the cognitive part of the brain, she adds.

Reframing the perception of sensitivity

As a highly sensitive person herself, Bjelland grew up hearing the negative messages often directed toward people with the sensory processing sensitivity trait: “Why are you so sensitive? What’s wrong with you? Why are you reacting that way?” When people hear those messages as children, she says, they do begin wondering what is wrong with them.

That internalized message is why psychoeducation about the trait is so important, along with validating clients’ experiences. Most highly sensitive people spend their entire lives feeling misunderstood and that something is different about or wrong with them, Bjelland says. Therapy is the place where these clients can begin changing this narrative and turning it into something empowering, she notes.

In her experience working with this population, Bjelland finds that clients often have a transformative experience once they realize that their temperament is normal, that they are not alone, and that they can take steps to improve their experience.

On the other hand, Smith has noticed that some highly sensitive clients experience a grief response after first learning about the trait. They may need time to grieve that they are unlike the other 80% of the population and yet live in a world designed by those without the sensitivity trait, she observes.

Sawyer, a licensed mental health counselor and art therapist, also helps clients reframe their negative experiences, such as being labeled crybabies as children. Counselors can help clients understand that they feel both negative and positive emotions more intensely than other people do. So, when they cried, they were just naturally expressing what they were sensing, which is normal for someone with this trait, she explains.

“They don’t have the problem,” Sawyer says. “It’s the perception that they have a problem that can turn it into one.” So, rather than thinking that they can’t control their emotions, clients can come to understand that with the right support, they can regulate their emotions. They can also take pride in the fact that they feel not only sadness on a deeper level than most people do but also experience incredible happiness, Sawyer says.

Lombard carefully selected the name of her private practice, Strong and Sensitive, to counter the tendency to equate sensitivity with weakness. Many of her clients come in with low self-esteem because of negative stereotypes about being sensitive. She reassures them that it is a normal temperament variation and not a problem. By normalizing the trait, counselors can help clients to embrace it and see it as a strength rather than a weakness, Lombard adds.

Smith teaches clients to more effectively communicate with those who seem to point out sensitivity as a problem. For instance, rather than taking on the onus to defend their sensitivity, clients could ask the other person, “What part of my sensitivity are you having a problem with?” This question reverses the normal assumption that something is wrong with the client’s sensitivity and shifts the conversation to how the other person may need to adjust his or her language or thinking to help problem-solve the relationship dynamic.

Susceptibility to the environment

Research has shown that in a positive developmental environment, highly sensitive children are more likely to thrive than are their peers who are not highly sensitive. However, in a stressful environment, highly sensitive people tend to do worse than do their peers who are not highly sensitive. In other words, this population is highly susceptible to both the good and bad aspects of their environment — a concept known as differential susceptibility.

A highly sensitive person once told Bjelland that when she was younger, her parents made her wear a wool sweater. After repeatedly asking her parents if she could stop wearing it because the material bothered her, they simply replied, “Wear it anyway.” Bjelland notes that this is an example of a highly sensitive person not being supported, and that circumstance can lead to problems.

Bjelland has also noticed that if a highly sensitive child has anxiety, then almost always one or both parents do too. Therapists can’t easily help anxious children if they have an anxious parent, she says, because the child mirrors the parent and will feel unstable if the parent also feels that way.

Parents who are highly sensitive should also be on counselors’ radar because they can suffer from overstimulation and neglect of self-care, Lombard says. The highly sensitive population is also more negatively affected by sleep deprivation, which is common for parents of young children, Lombard notes. She has noticed that highly sensitive parents are sometimes so focused on being the best parents they can be that they don’t take good care of themselves, pumping breast milk constantly or not making time for meaningful adult conversation, for example.

Lombard and Sawyer both recommend that highly sensitive parents get extra support in the form of family members, friends, daycare or a nanny. If finances are an issue, these parents could consider setting up a rotation with another trusted parent to watch each other’s children on occasion, Lombard says. She also encourages highly sensitive parents to wear earplugs or noise-reducing headphones when appropriate because they turn the noise down a bit and can lessen overstimulation.

Other life changes such as a death in the family, menopause, illness or other stressful events can make highly sensitive people feel unbalanced and overwhelmed, especially if they aren’t taking care of themselves, Bjelland says. If they experience too much emotional activation, they may temporarily lose access to the tools and strategies they normally use to cope with overstimulation, she adds.

To counter this, Bjelland tells clients to keep a “positive journal” to record positive events, such as someone saying something nice to them, or techniques that make them feel good, such as going on a hike in nature. Then, when they are having a bad week, they will have a visual record of self-care tips and positive reminders.

The acceptance of sensitivity within a culture also affects one’s environment. Some clients, but especially men, deny having this temperament because society reinforces the idea that sensitivity is not a positive characteristic, Smith says. (Research suggests that the sensory processing sensitivity trait is equal among men and women.) Thus, counselors should be careful about labeling clients as highly sensitive.

Lombard agrees. In fact, if a client grew up in a machismo culture that considers sensitivity to be negative for men, then she might not directly use the term “highly sensitive person” because it may distract from their treatment or therapeutic progress. “Depending on the culture and family of origin, men can carry more shame around [their heightened] sensitivity,” Lombard says. Instead, she mentions that all people have different temperaments and explains that some situations, such as witnessing a car accident, for example, might affect them differently. She also teaches these clients many of the same coping skills without labeling them as being for highly sensitive people.

Bjelland, who is a global educator on this trait and teaches courses for highly sensitive people, doesn’t see as many self-esteem issues in cultures where sensitivity is more accepted. “In the United States where it’s not so accepted, we see a lot of self-esteem issues. And that’s connected to shame too. Most of us walk around with the narrative that something is wrong with us because that’s what we’ve been told,” she says. “Helping to change the client’s narrative to a positive one, where they recognize why this trait is important to the world, is incredibly important.”

Recently, a male client who identified as highly sensitive came to see Sawyer because he needed a safe space to talk. He was struggling to find and maintain a romantic relationship because he found that women often wanted a stereotypical man — someone bold, assertive and athletic. As they talked, Sawyer discovered that he had internalized the belief that being sensitive was negative, which caused his own social anxieties and made relationships even harder for him. After Sawyer reassured the client that he possessed a normal temperament trait and explained its four main characteristics, he felt less self-judgment.

Although simply providing psychoeducation around the trait can be liberating for some clients, counseling often requires a longer process to help clients begin shifting their negative self-perception of being “weak” or “weird,” she adds.

Mindful changes in an overstimulating world

The good news is that highly sensitive people can makes changes so that their lives are more compatible with this trait and they can more readily cope with the challenges posed by living in an often insensitive and overstimulating world.

Bjelland recommends that highly sensitive people carve out two hours of alone time per day and dedicate one complete day each week to downtime. Not surprisingly, many clients balk at this suggestion, saying they don’t have the available time to do that. Bjelland will ask them to try it for one week and, according to her, they will universally report that they had more energy and were more productive because they were more focused, calm and balanced.

Bjelland also advises clients to follow a slower routine in the morning to help set the tone for the day. Why? Think of the nervous system like a motor, she says. If a highly sensitive person jumps out of bed to get the kids ready for school and then races into work, their nervous system revs up, she explains.

The process of slowing down applies to the bedtime routine as well because, as Bjelland points out, this population often struggles with sleep issues. “If a highly sensitive person wakes up from having a good night’s sleep, they get to have their full 100 points of energy for the day, but if they’re having sleep issues, maybe they’re only going to get 50 points for the day, and they’re already starting out depleted,” she says.

She often tells clients to adopt a ritual of doing the same five things before bed, such as taking a warm bath, reading a nonstimulating book, listening to soft music, meditating, and shutting off all electronics. By the time they reach the third action, the brain realizes sleep is coming, she explains.

“You’re teaching them a new type of self-care because [they’ve] been trying to do what the 80% [of the population that is not highly sensitive] are doing, and it’s not working,” Bjelland adds.

Smith agrees that counselors may need to have conversations centered on how self-care for these clients may differ from what rejuvenates other people. For example, if a highly sensitive person tries to relax by going to a concert with lots of lighting and sound effects after work with friends, he or she may instead feel drained and overstimulated by the end of the night.

Overstimulation is a difficult challenge for people with the sensory processing sensitivity trait because they need so much downtime, Lombard points out. She finds mindfulness techniques helpful for teaching these clients how to stay in the moment and self-regulate. For example, a highly sensitive person may find a coffee shop with loud music and people talking overstimulating. However, counseling can provide the client with strategies to successfully navigate such a space. For instance, perhaps the client limits his or her amount of time in the coffee shop or brings noise-canceling headphones, Lombard suggests.

Because these clients feel so deeply, they often need help learning to calm their nervous systems, Lombard continues. Highly sensitive people “are taking in so much more sensory information, and it’s really overwhelming,” she says. “And sometimes [they’re] not even aware, if [they’re] not mindful, of what it was that made [them] feel down or anxious.” She asks her clients to meditate daily using an app such as Calm or Ten Percent Happier and practice breathing techniques to help them become more mindful, present and calm.

Sawyer also suggests that clients use meditation apps such as Headspace or Insight Timer and practice yoga. Sometimes, even the simple act of closing one’s eyes, listening to nature sounds, or going to a quiet spot such as a bathroom or car can be helpful, she adds. The key is finding activities that “help retrain the brain to slow down [and] pay more attention to what’s happening in [the] body,” she says.

Retraining the brain in this way also helps highly sensitive people realize that they have some control and do not have to feel overwhelmed all the time, Bjelland says. For example, every time clients catch their mind wandering during meditation and bring it back to what they’re focusing on, such as their breath, it is like strengthening a muscle. Then, if clients become overwhelmed at work or a large event, they have trained their brains to notice, and they recognize that they need to take a break, she explains.

To help clients exercise this “muscle,” Bjelland instructs them to ask themselves two questions every time they go to the bathroom: 1) How am I doing? and 2) What do I need? This process makes them aware of preventing depletion or overwhelm, she explains. “Highly sensitive people tend to be very externally focused because they’re always scanning the environment for other people’s needs,” Bjelland says. “Most highly sensitive people need to be taught how to explore internally to learn what they need without always filtering it through other people’s needs.”

Of course, the heightened sensitivity to one’s environment also has benefits. Smith has often heard highly sensitive people talk about spending time in nature because there isn’t as much stimulation there. It is a place where they can escape and delight in the beauty of the natural world.

For some highly sensitive people, listening to a bird chirp or watching a sunset can elicit intense feelings of joy or elation, Sawyer says. Spending time in nature — simply walking barefoot in the grass, for example — can also help calm the nervous system, she adds.

Lombard recommends that counselors take these clients outside if they can or, alternatively, bring the natural world into their offices with nature sounds or a water fountain to help create a sense of calm. Lombard has noticed that clients often feel calmer when they see, touch or hear water, so she frequently has clients listen to the sounds of a rainstorm or flowing brook.

Learning to communicate one’s needs

Although highly sensitive people’s empathetic nature often makes them great partners in life and work, relationship issues are one of the primary reasons that they seek counseling. “Highly sensitive people in relationship are going to be so attuned to what the other person is feeling that sometimes they allow that to dominate over their own needs,” Smith says. For example, they may take on more work to please their boss even when they are already overwhelmed.

Smith finds role-play beneficial for helping these clients learn how to assert themselves in relationships. In counseling, they can safely practice communicating their own needs even if it initially seems strange or dramatic to them, she says.

Because highly sensitive people often hold themselves up to the standards of the 80% of the population that is not highly sensitive, they may not be aware that they need more downtime or need to do less so they can maintain their health and wellness, Sawyer says. To help these clients identify their needs and build new habits and coping strategies, she sometimes has them create a values collage of images that speak to them or make them feel good. Through this visual exercise, clients often will discover a common theme, such as nature. The values collage also serves as a reminder of ways that clients can calm an overstimulated nervous system the next time they find themselves in a stressful or overwhelming situation, Sawyer says.

For example, if a client’s collage contains mainly pictures of the ocean, Sawyer will ask how much time the client is spending near the beach or water. If the client says only once or twice a month, Sawyer will recommend increasing the time that the client engages in activities that will replenish them. For example, the client could go for regular walks on the beach or, if that isn’t feasible, pull up YouTube videos of ocean waves and sounds or simply take a bath to connect with water.

Working with these clients also involves helping them learn to set boundaries and communicate their needs, Sawyer says. She finds that nonviolent communication, an approach developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, is a useful tool for highly sensitive people because it provides them with structure for setting boundaries. This type of communication involves:

  • Observing what does or does not contribute to their well-being
  • Identifying how they feel in relation to what they observed
  • Identifying the needs or values that cause their feelings
  • Making a request to fill that need or have that need met (the concrete actions they would like to see)

Sawyer provides a hypothetical case example. A highly sensitive person is worried about going on vacation with her friends because they are extraverted. The client also fears she will be expected to participate in every activity they have planned and that she won’t get enough downtime. First, Sawyer would help this client identify her needs and preferences for this trip. The client says she would like to have the room farthest away from the common areas because it will provide less stimulation if others stay up late talking. She would also like to tell her friends that she will opt out of an activity to stay in and read.

Next, Sawyer and the client discuss her fear of appearing antisocial if she communicates these needs to her friends. Sawyer uses emotional freedom techniques to help the client ease that fear and calm her nervous system. She asks the client to identify her fear. The client responds, “I feel nervous about talking to my friends.” Sawyer then asks where she feels that fear. The client says, “My stomach feels like it has butterflies.”

After ranking the intensity of the feeling (on a scale from 1 to 10), the client taps different pressure points while repeating the phrase, “Even though I feel nervous about speaking to my friends, I deeply and completely accept myself.” The goal is to have the intensity of her fear drop to a 2 or below.

Next, Sawyer and the client role-play scenarios of the client having this conversation with her friends. For example, she could say, “I’m someone who needs downtime. Would it be OK if I stay in from an outing so I don’t feel so anxious?” or “I’m excited about this trip and love hanging out with you, but I wanted to let you know that I will probably need a couple hours of alone time each day.”

Being a more sensitive counselor

Highly sensitive people “have higher responsivity to counseling interventions,” according to Smith. “Where they have positive fit with the counselor, they do better or they have more of a treatment response, and they seem to get more out of the counseling relationship.”

But how can counselors ensure that they are a good fit for a highly sensitive client? Smith recommends that counselors first think about their own temperament because it will inform any strategy they use. Are they highly sensitive, or are they among the other 80% of the population? At the same time, highly sensitive therapists shouldn’t assume that clients’ experiences are the same as their own, she adds.

“The 80% are very capable of working with highly sensitive people, but they need to be very careful of their own biases because they represent the majority,” Smith continues. “They may jump to a conclusion, or they may have some internalized negative biases of people who are highly sensitive.” If counselors aren’t aware of their internal biases, they risk unintentionally perpetuating some of those negative messages in the therapeutic process, she says. “And the highly sensitive person is coming to counseling because they’re looking for something different than what they’re getting in society.”

The good news is that “many counseling approaches would work well if the counselor is able to adapt it in light of what they know of the client’s high sensitivity,” Smith says. For example, if the counselor stares intently while the client is doing a sand tray intervention, then the client could become overstimulated and have a negative experience, making the intervention less effective, she explains. Instead, the counselor could step back and say, “I’m going to let you do this activity for 10 minutes. I’ll be over here doing my notes.”

Counselors should also think about the way they use language and how the highly sensitive person might perceive it. “The highly sensitive person is probably going to pick up more on nuanced language because, in general,” Smith says, “they’re wired to pick up more subtleties in their environment.” This also includes tone of voice, surroundings in an office, and nonverbal language, she adds.

Bjelland advises counselors to consider the environment in their offices. Is the lighting too bright? Is the client looking into a window? What is the texture of the couch? Does the office have a lot of strong smells such as cleaning products, perfumes or incense?

Smith also cautions counselors to be careful with cognitive behavior therapy. Because highly sensitive people process their environment and emotions deeply, asking them to think about cognitive distortions — the simple ways that the mind convinces a person that something isn’t true — can seem simplistic to them. It can even come across as patronizing to ask a highly sensitive client to reframe a cognition when he or she is having thousands of cognitions on a very deep level, Smith adds. Instead, she suggests saying, “Are these cognitions or depths of processing working well for you, or are these cognitions moving more into rumination?”

Counselors should also be careful when using interventions that might not value the depths of processing because they may unintentionally indicate that there is something wrong with the way the client is processing information, she notes.

Counselors also have the opportunity to reinforce clients’ gift of high sensitivity by validating the strengths and positives of the trait, Smith says. For example, a teacher might feel frustrated because he or she can’t soothe a crying boy. But a highly sensitive child in that same class probably would have noticed that the boy is upset because his crayon rolled under his desk, or the highly sensitive child might even notice the crayon rolling under the desk before the other child does and could grab it and prevent the boy from getting upset in the first place.

Thus, working with highly sensitive people can have far-reaching effects. As Bjelland points out, “You’re really creating a domino impact across the globe when you help a highly sensitive person lift off that layer of overwhelm and help them access those gifts and teach them how to care for their sensitive system because when they are thriving, they go out and help people and make a difference in the world. It’s just who they are.”

 

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The highly sensitive therapist

Many professional counselors don’t just treat highly sensitive clients — they have the sensory processing sensitivity trait themselves. Find out how they manage the benefits and challenges of this trait in the article “Advice for the highly sensitive therapist,” available exclusively at CT Online.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The miscommunication model and the WDEP system

By Barbara A. Mahaffey June 4, 2019

Helping clients keep or revitalize loving relationships are long-term goals for those who specialize in couples counseling. Those goals get derailed when one or both clients storm out of the room during the middle of a heated debate during an intake session. Therapeutic ruptures and divorces can happen if counselors fail to quickly mediate couples’ arguments, especially if the counselor has not yet established credibility and an alliance with the clients.

Success in couples counseling sometimes depends upon gaining a therapeutic alliance with both partners while simultaneously preventing or resolving emotional outbursts. However, simply teaching couples polite ways to communicate will not keep them together, according to John Gottman. Another technique or approach is warranted. Couples who come to counseling are seeking relief from anger, tension and communication breakdowns, so it makes sense for us to offer them a new way of relating to each other.

I developed a technique to help couples communicate and self-disclose in a nonthreatening way and used this technique as my intake in private practice starting in 1996. What is different about this creative technique? The secret may be the miscommunication model. I found the missing key to helping couples alter communication patterns was engaging them in creating a drawing that contained the reasons they struggled to keep calm and communicate their needs and wants. While completing this drawing, people gained insight into the ways they had been miscommunicating.

What is lacking for many couples is the ability to debate, relate and communicate without blame, shame and anger. While drawing the miscommunication model, each person recognizes that communication is difficult and that everyone struggles with multiple barriers. For most, the drawing is a cathartic exercise that can shift the common blame-game conflicts to goal setting and nonthreatening communication opportunities.

Most people come to counseling with the expectation of a tell-all session focused on disclosing problem after problem, or they complete a checklist of problems before a session begins. Unfortunately, intervention strategies specific to preventing or defusing negative or emotionally charged situations is a skill gap in counselor education. This raises an important question: How do counselors gain trust simultaneously with two strangers, provide tools to promote their affective connection, and prevent outbursts and ruptures during a volatile first session?

Establishing multiple therapeutic alliances

As is the case with individual counseling, a therapeutic alliance is the most important factor in successful couples counseling. Gaining a therapeutic alliance with two people simultaneously is a multifaceted challenge, however, especially when these individuals are trying to describe relationship concerns and upsets to a stranger.

Conflict resolution for couples begins after a counselor establishes ground rules and structure during the intake session. The first important rule is to establish how clients can have a calm session. If a first session is filled with anger and centered on problems, counselors will find it more difficult to form a bond with these individuals. Establishing a nonthreatening review of couple challenges is one way to provide catharsis, encourage openness and set ground rules. Sessions should also end with goal setting to keep a calm home environment in between sessions.

I developed the miscommunication model during years of intake assessments to deescalate anger and promote a working relationship among all people in the counseling room. As part of the effort to establish an alliance with both people simultaneously, the model provides counselors with a way to demonstrate barriers to a satisfying relationship while establishing nonthreatening goals and tasks. The first tasks are to provide the mechanism through which each client will participate in counseling, learn about barriers to healthy communication, and gain awareness of ways that relationships can be derailed. In demonstrating the miscommunication model, counselors can then help couples learn to express what they want.

Clients may not come to counseling with a set of rules for governing appropriate self-disclosure. Therefore, counselors can introduce the tenets of choice theory’s WDEP (want, do, evaluate, plan) system concurrently with the miscommunication model to add a directive structure to counseling sessions, according to internationally known choice theorist Robert Wubbolding. The purpose of combining the WDEP system and the miscommunication model is to first outline how common traits, past experiences, barriers, learned patterns, language and its meanings, emotional reactions, life interference and family rules contribute to a breakdown in couple communication, and then to introduce a way to build a happier relationship.

The miscommunication model approach to intake interviews

The miscommunication model was developed to help clients understand and conquer the many barriers to an improved relationship. One potential helpful insight is that people can and often do have different “wants” or needs in a relationship. Choice theory’s WDEP system provides structure when integrated in this model.

In some cultures, relationship conflict begins when one of the partners in a couple believes that both partners should share common wants. Counselors can provide conflict-resolution templates to help couples thwart power struggles (for example, by getting the couple to focus on helping each other attain goals rather than focusing on whose wants are more important). Guiding couples to learn aspects of negotiation and acceptance are additional ways that this model promotes a healthy relationship.

What has been missing in previous approaches to couples counseling is engaging couples in a conversation about the ways that anyone can be misunderstood when trying to communicate. One way to engage clients in intake sessions is to draw a diagram denoting two people communicating and then to explain the common barriers to and complexities of relationships. Framing this information in a way that suggests that interpersonal communication can be improved adds hope for couples with relationship ruptures.

Miscommunication barriers vary, and the model illustration on page 39 shows only a small sampling of these barriers. Clients can be encouraged to come up with more examples that fall under headings such as personal characteristics, past experiences, brain lies, family rule books, rate of talking versus rate of thinking, life event disruptions, and words and definitions. Counselors who draw a miscommunication model — with clients’ input — can integrate the goal-setting WDEP system tenets of “what are our wants,” “what will we do,” “evaluate” and “plan for and create a quality world.” This is a refreshing new way to engage clients in a nonthreatening conversation.

People who come for couples counseling typically have not been able to resolve their differences and are seeking assistance to do so. Learning that people miscommunicate many times a day helps to remove some of the blame, shame, guilt and anger that are often present in these relationships. These negative emotions can be the underlying cause of a ruptured relationship. Learning about the many ways that miscommunication has disrupted their relationship also serves to add skills to the couple’s toolbox. It is important for counselors to normalize the frequency of miscommunication by pointing out that everyone differs in some way and that disagreements are commonplace, not the exception.

Personal characteristics

Discussing the barriers that hinder relationships can be tricky business. People depend on counselors to lead conversations about problem-solving though, and the place to begin is by talking about the “elephants in the room.”

The first barrier to communication in the miscommunication model is each person’s differing characteristics. Each person has different traits, cultural influences, coping and defense mechanisms, learned behaviors, circumstances and life predicaments that can hinder relationship harmony. Some clients can easily list other attributes that differ, including age, race, religion, education, interests, abilities, sibling status, and work or military experience. Others may note differences in body language, personalities, parental influences, relationship histories, likes and dislikes, communication habits and health issues. A few clients might disclose traumatic experiences, medical histories and pre-existing thoughts about counselors or the counseling process.

This extensive list can be developed over several sessions if warranted. Counselors can explain that many of the barriers will be unspoken and unconscious. It is sometimes appropriate for counselors to note that barriers can be kept secret to protect the emotional safety of the clients. One example of this is that clients are not pressured to disclose childhood abuse. Significant others or spouses may not realize that certain topics are “off limits” for the other person in the room.

Preventing session blowups and engaging clients in a calm conversation about what has changed in their relationship involves helping couples gain insights into their communication skills. At some point in their couplehood, their ability to discuss what they want/need and how to share problems changed.

Sometimes the differences or discrepancies in how people relate to one another are obvious and sometimes not. When discussing relationship barriers, it is wise to point out how a person’s past or lived experiences can create a block to understanding another person’s actions, decision-making, problem-solving abilities, and likes or dislikes. For example, a couple might argue about going to a certain restaurant without being able to talk about a past negative experience that is influencing the thinking, emotions or actions of one of the partners. The miscommunication model would focus attention on this important discussion topic by adding it as a conversation bubble for one of the communicators in the drawing.

Talk about family rules

One way to introduce the “family rules” miscommunication barrier is to discuss the family-learned communication styles that Virginia Satir wrote about in Peoplemaking. Her communication styles and “family rule books” of placater, distractor, computer, blamer and open communicator can be added between the two people in the miscommunication model drawing. This is the counselor’s judgment call and depends on how volatile the couple’s relationship can be.

Another Satir concept, “can of worms,” illustrates the complicated communication patterns in families and can be added in a future session should it become a hot button issue. If a client points out that the other person’s family has a rule book of open warfare and verbal onslaughts, I recommend noting this as a topic for a future session.

Another family rule book example that can be noted for future discussion is the concept of “life expectations.” Many times, derailed personal goals connected to children, work, education or bill paying can be hidden aspects behind relationship dissatisfaction. Although understanding a client’s values, morals and beliefs is an important part of establishing trust and a therapeutic alliance, an intense discussion around these topics can derail the focus on issues during the first session. It may be beneficial for counselors to be directive and to suggest that such topics be developed in future sessions, after the therapeutic alliance has been well-established among everyone involved.

Normalize individual differences

Yet another barrier to communication is our personal brain differences. Part of the benefit of the miscommunication model drawing is the catharsis clients feel when they realize that many other people have struggled to keep a relationship thriving. Counselors might point out the many possible differences between people in learning styles, intelligences, interests, values/morals and perceptual acuities/filters. Also, people “screen” in and retain information differently, yet they may not realize these differences.

In the miscommunication model, these differences can be demonstrated by drawing two brains and pointing out the different ways, speeds and processing pathways for each person. For example, Person A may process and filter by using cognitions or thoughts first. Person B may process by filtering feelings first. Yet another person can believe that they verbalized a thought even when they didn’t because we think faster as humans than we speak. Drawing the two brains can aid in emphasizing that each person in the relationship has unique qualities. Note that people have different processing speeds and rates of speech too. This provides clients with an opportunity to gain awareness and new insights.

Some counselors who draw the miscommunication model use the phrase “our brain lies to us” to describe another barrier: conceptualizations. To help clients grasp the concept that the brain sometimes “lies,” counselors can offer the examples of optical illusions or mistaken perceptions by witnesses. Some clients may resist the notion that their brain isn’t always a dependable source of accurate perceptions. The knowledge that information is not always perceived, interpreted, processed and retained correctly can be unsettling. Counselors may wish to ask permission to point out inconsistent communication to highlight instances when the “brain lies.”

When drawing the miscommunication model, counselors can also add the ways that people differ genetically, developmentally and stage/age wise, and then discuss those aspects.

The miscommunication model next leads to introduction of the Do tenet from the WDEP system. This helps clients shift to a discussion about how to resolve or respect individual differences.

Daily life barriers

Daily life disruptions are constant sources of miscommunication. Any number of new or co-occurring outside events can affect a person’s relationship and communication quality. Family, work, environment, health issues, money issues and other stressors can add to a person’s strife and grief. In the miscommunication model, the importance of these variables could be added or symbolized as a conversation bubble that is drawn or attached to the second person in the couple interaction. The risks involved in second marriages, deaths in the family, and child rearing are common topics within this barrier. During this discussion, counselors may engage clients in ideas about evaluating their situations, establishing their plans and setting goals.   

Words and language as relationship barriers

Words are one of the biggest hindrances to successful couple communication. How a person defines a word or phrase can cause grave misunderstandings, especially when there is a lack of clear definition related to emotions. I would caution counselors not to ask clients, “What is your definition of love?” because that query can result in a storm-filled diatribe in session. Conversely, pointing out that emotion-laden words such as love may be defined in many ways can be a healing approach.

Miscommunication also happens in cultural and historical contexts. Newly created terms used in texting, social media and alternative forms of communication (such as meta communication) only sometimes have shared meanings. For example, one couple split their household over the phrase, “I am done.” One spouse interpreted this as the intent to divorce, whereas the other spouse interpreted it as meaning their conversation had ended.

Another couple’s rupture was healed after talking about how one of them expressed love through behaviors rather than verbally. The husband realized he had learned about love from watching John Wayne movies and had internalized a belief that “I don’t have to say I love you, I just do.” He also learned an important evaluation skill — that challenging a learned reaction and confronting a prior belief could benefit both him and his wife. His wife benefited from learning that he was not intentionally dismissing the words that would typically be used to express an affective connection. She also started observing the favors and actions he did to show his caring for her between counseling sessions. This problem resolution happened because of her request to “receive the gift of a verbal love commitment — the statement of ‘I love you.’”

I have seen couples benefit from discussing throughout the counseling process words that have different meanings or definitions. Some examples of words that often have different contexts or descriptors include committed relationship, separation, affective connection, friendship, change and going steady.

Integrating WDEP’s problem-solving steps

The final aspect of the miscommunication model and the integrated WDEP system is the creation of a plan. (While the evaluation aspect of WDEP is not elaborated on in the model, it is part of the ongoing discussion orchestrated by the counselor in the room.) The plan can have three goal sections — one for each member of the couple and one for the couple as a unit. Each person is given a chance to state one goal that will facilitate the creation of their “quality world.” This is an important aspect to goal attainment and success, according to Wubbolding and his associate, John Brickell.

Typically, the couple goal is a fun and easy task or set of tasks. One of these might be to plan an activity in which both individuals create a new interest together and then report back to the counselor about what was accomplished. The plan should include a timeline and should feature positive, mutually agreed upon and doable activities, according to Mark Young, a counselor educator at the University of Central Florida.

One of the skills that counselors can model during the session termination phase is to frame plan changes in positive ways. For instance, instead of wording a goal with terms such as “unmet expectations,” counselors can help clients set goals that are “gifts for each other” that lead to relationship improvement.

Drawing the miscommunication model and integrating the WDEP system on a piece of paper that the couple can take home is a great way to assist them in recalling homework, goals and barriers to future interpersonal communication. It also is an unexpected presentation method. One benefit to drawing the dynamics of interpersonal communication is that couples can come to future sessions better prepared to diagram their miscommunications. This paves the way to increased insights about their conflicts and arguments.

When counselors try to teach clients different or accepted ways to communicate without first gaining their trust and, more importantly, their insights into barriers to communication, they often fail to help couples improve and stay in committed relationships. Relationships can improve, but it involves a process of learning how communication can go in a wrong direction. People can more easily change their attitudes and opinions about each other if they are given information that empowers positive change. The miscommunication model is a tool that couples can use to discuss their individual wants, intentions, behaviors and plans.

Simultaneously conducting an intake assessment and providing education about how to navigate relationships has been successful in helping me prevent couples counseling ruptures and storm-filled counseling sessions. Counselors can combine the miscommunication model with the WDEP system for a directive approach that leads to problem resolution.

 

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Helpful resources

  • “Applying reality therapy’s WDEP tenets to assist couples in creating new communication strategies,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey and Robert Wubbolding, The Family Journal, 2016
  • “Couples counseling directive technique: A (mis)communication model to promote insight, catharsis, disclosure and problem resolution,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey, The Family Journal, 2010
  • “Therapeutic alliance: A review of sampling strategies reported in marital and family therapy studies,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey and Paul F. Granello, The Family Journal, 2007

 

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Barbara A. Mahaffey is the executive director of the Scioto Paint Valley Mental Health Center, an agency that serves clients in five counties in Ohio with outpatient and residential facilities. Contact her at bmahaffey@spvmhc.org.

 

 

Letters to the editor:  ct@counseling.org

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.